80s Movie Challenge Week 35: Crocodile Dundee (1986)

G’day cobbers! Welcome to another #80sMC! This week Paul Childs goes walkabout as he looks at the highest-grossing film of all time from Down Under – and the second-biggest film of 1986, beaten only by Top Gun. It’s Crocodile Dundee!

If you look back at many of the films we’ve looked at over the past 35 weeks, you can see why they were chosen to represent 80s Cinema. Many of them were massive blockbusters, such as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Back To The Future or Top Gun. Some had a lot to say about the important issues of the day, like Do The Right Thing, Wall Street or 9 To 5. Others spawned long-running franchises (First Blood, The Terminator, The Karate Kid) and some, while relatively unsuccessful at the time, have gone on to become regarded as classics with an influence which is still felt today (Robocop, Blade Runner, Dirty Dancing).

However, they all have one thing in common. They’re all hugely quotable. It was impossible to negotiate the 1980s playground without having phrases thrown at you like “Dead or alive you are coming with me”, “Phone home”, “I’ll be back”, “Lunch is for wimps”, “Great Scott!”, “I feel the need, the need for speed”, “Wax on, wax off”.

And that brings me to this week’s film.

As I watched this with my wife the other day – after neither of us having seen it for many years – we both came to the same conclusion; there’s not actually a lot to Crocodile Dundee beyond the comic set-pieces and quotes. And it is massively quotable. Even if you’ve not seen it, you know many of the lines:

“Call that a knife. That’s a knife”, “One for me, and one for me mate”, “Is it dead? Well, if it isn’t, I’m gonna have a hell of a job skinning the bastard” and so on. Underneath all that, there’s a very lean story about a bushman who encounters a spot of culture clash when invited to the big city.” Crocodile Dundee starts like a traditional survival adventure as Linda Kozlowski’s journalist Sue Charlton accompanies him on a trek through the bush, experiencing his lifestyle for a story, fighting poachers, living off the land, communing with the Aboriginies. It’s only when the action switches location to The Big Apple that Crocodile Dundee descends into not much more than a series of skits as Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee stumbles from one misunderstanding to another.

There’s maybe an hour’s worth of story hidden in its 104 minutes. However – it’s still a very entertaining watch.

As with many, many (many) of the films on this list, my friend Mez recommended this to me. He always saw all the good films first – and would often quote them around the schoolyard in the days after seeing them. He regaled me with outlandish stories of a man who fights crocodiles, a kangaroo with a gun, a very unorthodox way of stopping a mugger (beautifully homaged in Hot Fuzz) and more. However, while I usually did follow up on his recommendations, for whatever reason, I didn’t with this one. But I do remember the exact date, time and place I first saw it: 18:15 on Monday 25th December 1989, sat on a cushion in my Uncle Barrie’s lounge.

I spent the morning opening gifts with my brothers. By 1989 I was past getting toys so these were mostly clothes, hair products, blank tapes (both audio and VHS), music, etc (you can read about the last toys I ever got for Christmas on the Haunted Generation website by Bob Fischer of Fortean Time and Electronic Sound magazines). After lunch we all decamped to Uncle Barrie and Auntie Margie’s house for games, socialising, more grub and, what had become as much a part of Christmas tradition as Turkey and Crackers: the big TV specials and the BBC’s premiere showing of a blockbuster movie. That meant Only Fools & Horses (The Jolly Boys Outing) followed by Crocodile Dundee. Between those two was The Russ Abbott Show and we intended to switch the TV off and eat during that gap. However, I still recall the newsflash after OFAH before anyone managed to get to the TV (this was before every TV had a remote). Nicolae Ceaușescu, the president of Romania, and his wife Elena had been executed following a coup a few days earlier.

Whenever I watch the film, I can’t separate the two – it always makes me think of that weird Christmas Day, having laughed ourselves silly at the exploits of Del Boy, Rodney and co, only to see that sombre newsflash, to return back to the merrymaking just minutes later. Just over a week later when school returned from the holidays, after showing off our gifts, Crocodile Dundee was one of the many movies shown over the break. Other notable films which received their premiere that Christmas (and which soon filled my newly acquired VHS tapes) included Labyrinth, Short Circuit, Teen Wolf, Clockwise, The Woman In Black, Krull, Legend, Ruthless People and Crocodile Dundee’s dialogue was soon lost in amongst all the other quotes.

I’m going to go off on a little bit of a tangent now with a story of something weird that happened to me before wrapping up with a few interesting behind the scenes tidbits. That same holiday I had a dream. It was a fairly normal dream as dreams go. Nothing out of the ordinary, no supervillain mooses playing volleyball in the woods at midnight or green vampire horses hiding in swimming pool changing cubicles (yes they were real dreams I once had). Nothing like that. Like many Gen-X kids, one of my favourite shows had been Knight Rider. However, I had never seen the pilot episode in which the hideously disfigured Michael Long became the Lone Crusader of the show’s title sequence monologue. On the first night of the 1990s – Sunday 1st January – I dreamt that the episode I so longed to see would be shown on TV. I woke up knowing it had been a dream and having enjoyed a nice long lie-in, what with school still being out.

As I often did when I had nothing to do that day, I popped on my bedroom TV and began flicking through the channels. This was around 10:45 on 2nd January 1990. Here’s the TV listing for that morning…

Weird eh? You could say that I’d seen an ad for it but I swear I had no idea it was going to be shown.

Anyway, thanks for indulging me. Let’s get back to this week’s film…

Crocodile Dundee was an early example of a crowdfunded movie. Paul Hogan’s original idea didn’t have much sway with the big studios so he went to his friends, business acquaintances and many high-profile Australian celebrities, including Michael Hutchence, the frontman of INXS (who were, just breaking through into the international market following the success of their Listen Like Thieves album). Hogan and producer John Cornell each put in $600,000 of their own money (figures given in US$) and between the 1400 investors they raised the remaining $7.8m needed to produce the film. It was a gamble but it paid off as the final box office for Crocodile Dundee was $328m – almost 50 times its budget! The profits were shared amongst the investors and INXS got an extra bonus by securing a slot on the film’s soundtrack with their song Different World (which was originally the b-side to Listen Like Thieves).

Even with the film in the can, US distributor Paramount was nervous about the title. They thought cinemagoers would equate the word Crocodile with monster movies like Alligator or, worse, exploitation “Swamp” movies like Cannibal Holocaust. Because of this, the American poster included quotation marks around the word “Crocodile”. Paramount’s distribution president Barry London said of the decision:

We wanted everyone to know Crocodile was a nickname.

As well as the poster, the original theatrical release had seven minutes cut, mostly containing large amounts of Australian dialogue and slang which the studio believed the American public wouldn’t understand. Hollywood execs already had form for this, having re-dubbed dialogue in the original Mad Max movie with American accents.

The Plaza Hotel where Mick stays when he arrives in New York was once owned by Donald Trump and is the same hotel featured in Home Alone 2 (including a scene in which he appeared. Its appearance in the film made the hotel extremely popular, with passers-by asking the doorman if “Mick is in” and potential customers requesting the same room he occupied in the film. Many would be disappointed to find out that the room in the film was actually a set and that the hotel didn’t have any bidets on the site (one of the running culture-clash gags in the movie is that he can’t work out what one is for).

Overall, this is one of the movies in our Year Long 80s Movie Challenge which I don’t have a much of an emotional tie with – although as I’ve hopefully proved above, even then, there’s always a story behind the first time you see an iconic movie if you dig deep enough. I didn’t put the list together (it is courtesy of Helen O’Hara of Empire Magazine) and perhaps I wouldn’t have put Crocodile Dundee on my own personal Ultimate 80s list. However, given the success of the movie, especially the ramifications that held for Australian cinema (leading to more blockbusters in the next decade like Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding and Babe), perhaps it does deserve to be there after all.

Come back next week as Paul stays in New York City and has what she’s having to find out if the friendship between a man and woman truly can remain platonic with 1989’s When Harry Met Sally.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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